This article was originally written for an internet discussion group on bodypsychotherapy. An early version, from November 1999, is posted on the Primal Psychotherapy Page. The following has been edited to more truly reflect my present viewpoint.
A Commentary on the Value of Touch and Holding in Psychotherapy
Human biology genetically intends for us to be protected and nurtured through gestation until our formation is complete in adulthood. As I have myself researched, and author Aletha Solter (Tears & Tantrums) concurs, this longer period (compared to most living things) leaves a very large window for potential damage. I believe this is why human beings at this point in history carry more neurotic dysfunction than any other species.
Young beings need to be protected and nurtured - "safe holding" in the most fundamental way. Tragically, the primary "holder/protectors" often fail and cause the young to be overwhelmed with an unmanageable barrage of stimulus or starved by an unmanageable barrage of neglect. As a desperate act of survival, the biology of the young being does what the parents aren't doing - it creates its own wall of protection in its brain/body. It finds alternate means of protection, nurturing and comfort - means that, as substitutes, don't do as effective a job as the intended, parental "protective embrace." Some of the results are addictive behaviours and substance abuse, in a being that is shut off - numb yet suffering - behind its own wall of protection.
These self-imposed walls and blocks often remain into adulthood, creating a lack of system flow that is detrimental to healthy functioning. After all, the walls were often created for a danger that is now past. Most often, people suffer with these walls until they die.
Our "biology," however, carries an "ideal" - the genetic code for a proper growth environment (proper parental protective nurture) and also for a proper healing situation - a later protected environment. This later healing circumstance does not have to be with the parents, especially if they are the main origin of the abuse. But this new situation, to be effective and allow healing to happen, has to be truly protective and nurturing. This environment cannot be created by other walled-off beings (therapists or otherwise) who will unconsciously use other people as a source of comfort or distraction from their own pain. Such professionals, at their worst, can become predators of other people.
For a person to let down the walls they so valiantly built as children, they need a new wall of protection - a re-creation of the very type of enclosure that the parents were biologically intended to create. If this protective area is created by a truly functioning, feeling, healthy human being or human group, the injured person will first begin to test the security of this "emotional environment." Little by little, if the wall holds and they are not judged, criticized or attacked, they will begin to feel safe enough to let down their self-imposed walls and do two things - 1) release the hurtful feelings/memories held back inside the walls, and 2) begin to receive the nurturing sensations of life that they need in order to feel human and fulfilled. Ideally, the internal walls will eventually have no purpose and fade away. Our biology always has its latent defense mechanisms, however - to erect new walls whenever it is abused and needs them. To let walls down is not to be powerless.
This protective nurture does not coddle. It does not protect from the release of OLD pain - the vomiting of the poison. It is not a new soother. Any good parent (or therapist) knows that "overprotection" injures in another way. To hold/embrace psychically, in the right way, is a container, not an opiate.
The new "protective nurture" has to do this, and allow the one who is healing discover other healthy sources and relationships for continued growth. To be effective, this is what a therapeutic relationship has to be like. It can "do no harm" because harm causes walls - the illness itself. And a big part of nurturing includes safe, non-predatory touch because we feed through physical contact. To hold is to be human; not to hold is to be another perpetrator of the illness. That's how we all got sick.
I want to define holding. Any physical embrace that involves abuse is not holding - it is abuse. Our problem is that, being somewhat insensitive, we cannot easily tell, by looking, whether physical holding is harmful (predatory) or helpful. Many people, still neurotic and needy, go to university, learn with their heads, get pieces of paper and letters behind their names and begin to practice therapy. No amount of learning can help that type of sickness. They need to heal. But they can appear to be knowledgeable healers and set up situations, in accordance with their sick needs, to lure hurting people into their environment and offer what appears to be protective nurture. Their clients will attempt to trust, and open up, only to be abused by the needy therapist in one way or another, causing further damage and an additional wall ("I'll never trust anyone again"). People with big sticks who threaten to beat you aren't as big a problem. You know they're dangerous. It's the people who appear loving and caring that can do the greatest damage. That is one of the good reasons, I believe, holding in therapy is often considered dangerous.
The crucial issue is that full healing cannot happen without that protective nurturing being experienced at some point, even if it happens in a personal relationship rather than a professional one. To be fully human we have to touch and connect back with our human community. We are not biologically intended, like badgers are, to be solitary. When we isolate ourselves, it is just our own, sad, limited, protective embrace.
The healing environment of Protective Nurture is as much "a feeling in the air" - psychic containment, if you will - as it is a physical one. The therapist exuding this level of protection does not always have to touch or hold a client in order for the healing to work. In fact, most of the work will take place without any kind of touch, with the client deep into their feelings, being respectfully contained, witnessed and lovingly acknowledged by the therapist. Touching and holding (even hand holding or hand-on -shoulder), however, is simply a necessary human communication, and will happen at certain points when a human "contacts" and is really with another human being.
This all points to a big need for healthy, fully feeling, connected, conscious humans. Humans who maintain a healthy, happy womb, a safe loving birth and a warm caring family/tribe to grow and be human in. They are the humans who will naturally exude the protective nurture that children need to stay healthy and injured adults need in order to heal themselves. Good parents and good therapists come from that stock. Anyone who wants to help others to be free of this illness has to, first and foremost, be as free of the illness as possible themselves - by engaging in a non-stop healing process, an adventure in growth that never ends.
In my opinion, the psychotherapeutic dilemma about holding in therapy is unfortunate. We need to be held. We just don't need to be abused again in another sly way. The onus is on the "therapist" to be healthy, and to never stop on their quest to be more and more human. I do not advise those who seek a safe healing environment to drop their guard too quickly. Take time. Check out this new, supposedly protective, nurturing person/therapist, and walk away if there is something that doesn't feel right.
In a functional therapeutic relationship, I believe it is the client's power that chooses the therapy and directs it, but I also feel that it is a dance, a miracle of what humans do together. We can't create hard, fast rules here. Rules of that nature are of the neurotic divisive mind. We have to be very, very aware - and careful.
In addition - the healing person is, in many ways, allowing themselves to be a child. Children do not require sexual touch and a healthy adult does not need to have sex with a child. On the biologic level, alone, it doesn't make any sense. A therapist who offers protective nurture need never be remotely sexual for the healing to happen. That type of behaviour in a therapist is a serious sign that they are projecting their unresolved childhood need onto the client and using/abusing them as a pleasure soother or an anger/control target.
Since therapists are rarely at "the end" of their healing journey, the advice given most often by my mentors is - "When in doubt, do nothing." To add to that, I say to all therapists - don't stop doing the work.
PROTECT AND NURTURE.
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